Autism diagnoses more common in wealthier, educated communities, study finds

MADISON, Wisc. — Autism is more prevalent in wealthier and more educated communities, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at health data on 1.3 million eight-year-olds who were part of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study that took place in 11 states from 2002 to 2010, helping them determine the incidence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Young child with autism
A new study finds that autism diagnoses among children are higher in affluent communities and areas where more adults have college degrees.

This information was combined with U.S. Census data that contained statistics relating to measures of socioeconomic status in specific areas, including the number of adults with bachelor’s degrees, the percentage of families below the poverty line, and median household income.

Ultimately, children who lived in a neighborhood that fared well on any of the socioeconomic measures examined were more likely to be diagnosed with ASD, the researchers found.

“We wanted to see if part of this increase in ASD prevalence was because advances in screening techniques and medical training meant more children from disadvantaged backgrounds were gaining access to ASD diagnoses and services,” says researcher Maureen Durkin in a press release. “It doesn’t seem that’s the case.”

In other words, these findings would indicate that many children in disadvantaged neighborhoods simply lack a formal diagnosis, highlighting a critical disparity in treatment between different socioeconomic strata.

This hypothesis was supported by another finding — children living in impoverished neighborhoods who were diagnosed with intellectual disabilities were just as likely as their more well-to-do peers to be diagnosed with ASD.

“They may get referred for comprehensive medical follow-ups, which could then lead to a diagnosis of their ASD as well,” explains Durkin.

Furthermore, autism diagnosis rates, regardless of background, seem to be fairly consistent across social groups in many other Western nations, making the U.S. an anomaly, the researchers note.

Since the issue seems to be one of the haves and have nots, Durkin recommends that all children be screened for autism, a proposal first espoused by the American Academy of Pediatrics over a decade ago.

“We need to find cost-effective interventions and supports and make sure they are distributed equitably and in a way that reaches everybody who needs them,” she concludes.

Durkin and her team will now look at similar data from 2010 through 2016 to see if there are any changes. That’s because in 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that all children be screened by their physicians for autism. Thus, the researchers can determine if more screenings will lead to a more balanced result.

The full study was published online last week in the American Journal of Public Health.


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